Minimalist Shoes Smacked With Lawsuit, As Health Claims Get The Boot

The running world's recent trend of "minimalist" shoes has earned popularity partly from idea that they're more natural than regular running shoes. Now, not so much — minimalist shoemaker Vibram has just settled a class-action lawsuit for $3.75 million, agreeing to stop making health claims. Brian Metzler, the editor-in-chief of Competitor magazine, comments on the news.

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Minimalist shoes have been a big trend in recent years among runners. You know the ones - they look like gloves for your feet. Vibram's FiveFingers shoes have been among the most popular. In its marketing, the company claimed they could prevent injuries better than traditional running shoes. Well, now, Vibram has settled a class-action lawsuit for more than $3.5 million and it's agreed to stop making those health claims. To talk about this and the current trends, we turn to Brian Metzler. He is editor-in-chief of Competitor magazine, which specializes in running and endurance sports. Brian, welcome to the program.

BRIAN METZLER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So, Vibram's FiveFingers shoes essentially kind of launched this minimalist trend, right, almost 10 years ago. And the company, as well as runners, said that they decreased the risk of knee and ankle injuries. At this point, do we know now that that's definitely not the case?

METZLER: You know, I think that the challenge here is that certainly there's various runners who will say that they've gotten stronger or adapted well to these kind of shoes, and other brands have worked on them as well. There hasn't been any science that has shown this is true specifically to what their claims were, so I think that's where the trouble is.

CORNISH: But at the same time, I've read that sales of minimalist shoes have essentially been declining, right, and that runners are, it seems like, moving into the exact opposite direction. What can you tell us about the newer trend?

METZLER: Yeah, it's interesting. I think that, you know, the rise of what we call maximalist shoes has come on in the last couple of years. It was started with a brand called Hoka - Hoka One One is the full name. And they took the opposite approach of having shoes with more cushioning between a runner's foot and the ground. Surprisingly, though, it's not entirely more is more. It's actually taking some of the tenets of what we knew from minimalism - lighter weight, better materials, better construction - and putting them into a shoe that certainly gives you more cushion but allows you to have you foot move naturally as it might in a minimalist shoe.

CORNISH: But what are supposed to be the added benefits then of having this extra padding, I assume, in the sole of the shoe? I don't know if we are actually talking about something that looks like a basketball shoe.

METZLER: Yeah. They're very cartoonish in nature. When you first seem them, you're like, what? What is that? You can't believe it. But certainly the notion of more cushioning, the first thing that comes up is more comfort. And that's a good feeling on the foot for some runners in some indications. Also, recovery's a lot quicker. You know, for example, if you were to go for a one-hour or two-hour training run in a traditional pair of shoes on a harder surface, whether it be the West Side Highway or Lakeshore Drive in Chicago, you'd feel beat up. I mean, any human being, no matter how fit they are, takes the abuse of the impact of hitting the ground.

CORNISH: It seems as though these FiveFingers shoes, though, they didn't just get popular, people were almost tribal about it. And how do you anticipate this transition is going to go?

METZLER: You know, it's interesting. I think that there is definitely a tribal following around what happened with minimalism. Certainly, Dr. Daniel Lieberman of Harvard had some really good information, research-based, on people running barefoot. And that kind of took off in a whirlwind when you saw the pop culture kind of buzz go off about these. I think that's the challenge, though, too, because the early adopters in any product in our world certainly are probably, you know, part zealot and also part, you know, very interested in kind of finding out what's next. And, you know, as for what's going on now, I think that certainly maximalism is experiencing some of the same kind of scenarios. But I think that if it's a good thing that happened out of all of this, it's that more people are investigating their own running gait and also how their body could be improved or could benefit by additional training. So, cross-training, you know, on your own, strengthening your feet and your ankles and your lower legs, I think it's all kind of happening right now and that's probably the benefit of what we learned, you know, with some of the mistakes in some of the media hype that came out of the minimalist movement.

CORNISH: That's Brian Metzler. He's editor-in-chief of Competitor magazine. He joined us from Boulder, Colorado. Brian, thank you.

METZLER: Thanks very much for having me.

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